RECLAIMING CHRISTMAS?

Last Sunday marked the beginning of the Advent season, an important part of the church year. In more liturgical traditions, it is actually the beginning of the church year. It is meant to be a time of preparation for believers who can use the worship and activities of Advent to help celebrate the birth of Jesus.

However, there is a new purpose to the Advent season for many in the Christian faith that has developed in the last few years. This new purpose actually begins before Advent but does continue for the whole of the Advent season. The beginning date is a bit flexible but generally begins about the same time as the appearance of Christmas decorations and sales, which tends to get earlier every year.

The introduction of Christmas merchandise in stores begins the new Christian season, the “Advent Whining” season, where many Christians begin pointing at the commercialism, the politically correct names and greetings, the cultural excess and so on and start taking about having to “put Christ back in Christmas”. There are some who believe that if we whine loud enough and long enough, everything will disappear and we will have the kind of Christmas celebrations that we were meant to have before the culture stole our celebration from us.

The irony of the whole thing is that we Christians stole Christmas from the culture in the first place. The early church doesn’t seem to have celebrated Christmas at all–at least, there is no evidence in the New Testament to indicate this. The early worship focused on the Resurrection because that was the key element in this new faith.

There are no accounts in Scripture of the church celebrating the birth of Jesus–in fact, there is a strong case to be made that the date of Jesus’ birth was either unknown or forgotten as time passed. The date we celebrate, December 25, was chosen for convenience, not historical reliability. Palestine, while not as cold as Canada, does get cold this time of the year–projected night time temperatures for the next two weeks are in the single digits. Sheep and shepherds are unlikely to have been outside this time of the year.

December 25 ended up as the date to celebrate the birth of Jesus because of the fact that many cultures at that time had major events going on that time of the year. These events were set to mark the shortest day of the year and the hope that comes with the lengthening of the day. Give people a chance to party and they will party–and these cultural events developed into major events with feasting, partying and behaviours that may have been culturally sanctioned but which the developing Christian church could not condone.

When the church was small and a sometimes persecuted minority in the vast Roman Empire, it was relatively easy for the leadership to help believers avoid the temptations of the cultural celebrations. But as the church grew and eventually became the dominant faith, it became harder and harder to keep believers from going astray during the festivals. The increasing size and acceptability of the faith meant that there were lots of believers whose faith, while real, wasn’t as strong or as discriminating as the early church would have liked.

The solution–obviously, the church needed its own celebration with its own traditions so that believers would not be as tempted. The celebration of the birth developed out of this need but wasn’t a big hit at first. Christmas was a small and relatively minor part of the church year, although it developed its own traditions and customs and eventually replaced the cultural festivals it was meant to compete with.

But–people love a party and over time, the Christian celebration began to attract cultural elements that had been associated with the pre-Christian celebrations. In the West, commercial interests discovered that the developing cultural/religious mix could be a wonderful money making opportunity and began advertising to fuel the fire that developed into our modern Christmas.

So, we began without Christmas, stole a celebration from the culture and called it Christmas and are now upset that the culture wants their celebration back. My suggestion has always been that we let them have it back. The whole thing has got out of hand, we can’t take things back to the way they were (partly because things never were the way we thought they were) and getting mad and whining isn’t going to help anyone. So, give it back–let the culture have it.

We can do something else with our time and energy, things which we will look at tomorrow.

May the peace of Christ be with you.

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